Monday, March 22, 2010

Supreme Court to review case on possible liability for failure to train prosecutors to perform their duties

The Blog of the Legal Times is reporting today that the US Supreme Court has agreed to review Connick v. Thompson, a case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed a $14 million award for the wrongful conviction and death sentence of the defendant in a murder case.

The basis of the claim was that the defendant district attorney's office failed to train its lawyers on their legal and ethical duty to disclose exculpatory evidence, which resulted in the wrongful conviction of the then-defendant-now plaintiff. The opinion of the Court of Appeals is available here.

The BLT story states that current District Attorney Leon Cannizaro Jr. appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, "asserting that upholding the 5th Circuit's decision "exposes district attorney's offices to vicarious liability for a wide range of prosecutorial misconduct."" This is a strange argument since - according to the story - the claim is not based on vicarious liability. Someone here doesn't understand the concept of vicarious liability.

That misunderstanding aside, the case will be interesting to follow as it may have important implications for the concept of prosecutorial immunity and the extent of the possible civil liability in tort and ethical responsibility of the DA's office and its prosecutors. The case will be argued in the fall.

The case also has another interesting connection to issues of professional responsibility: the original case against the defendant was the underlying case in In Re Riehlmann (La 2005) often discussed in connection with the duty to disclose attorney misconduct under Rule 8.3. This was the case in which a former prosecutor, upon learning he was dying of cancer, finally decided to unburden himself and confess to a friend (Riehlmann) that he (the prosecutor) had intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence in a case that resulted in the imposition of the death penalty. That case was the case against Thompson, the then defendant-now plaintiff who eventually got the $14 million for the wrongful conviction.

So, let's recap. In 1985, a prosecutor withholds exculpatory evidence intentionally in a case against a man named Thompson, who is then convicted and sentenced to death. In 1994, the prosecutor confesses what he did to his friend Riehlmann (also a former prosecutor). Riehlmann does nothing about this for 5 years. After the exculpatory evidence is discovered in 1999, Riehlmann reveals what the former DA had told him. (Years later, Riehlmann is disciplined for his own misconduct in failing to disclose the prosecutor's misconduct). Eventually, after spending almost 20 years in death row for a crime he did not commit, Thompson's conviction is vacated, he is re-tried and found not guilty. Thompson then sued for damages arguing a violation of this rights under 42 USC Sec 1983 and was awarded $14 million. The Court of Appeals affirmed and now the Supreme Court will review the case in the fall.

Stay tuned...

UPDATE 3/26: Here is the story in

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